PANCHKULA, INDIA - Thousands of supporters of an Indian quasi-religious sect leader were leaving his headquarters in northern India on Sunday as authorities relaxed a curfew a day ahead of his sentencing for rape.
They responded to an appeal by authorities to go home after thousands of followers protested the guru’s rape conviction with violence that left at least 36 people dead in Panchkula and Sirsa towns in Haryana state on Friday. The guru faces seven years to life in prison.
Police spokesman Surjeet Singh said the curfew imposed in Sirsa town, where the headquarters is located, was relaxed for five hours on Sunday to help people buy food and other essential items and outsiders to return home.
The presence of nearly 10,000 people in the guru’s headquarters has raised fears they may turn violent again after their leader is sentenced on Monday. The judge will hold the proceedings in a prison in Rohtak town, where the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan, has been detained since Friday amid tight security.
Singh said hundreds of government forces, including the army, have been posted outside the sect’s headquarters since Friday’s violence, when mobs set fire to government buildings, vandalized bus stations and government vehicles and attacked police and TV journalists in Panchkula.
Police said that 30 people died in Panchkula and another six in Sirsa, while 524 were arrested.
The guru had denied the charges of raping the two women at his ashram in 2002.
The sect claims to have about 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It has also taken up social causes such as organizing the weddings of poor couples. Such sects have huge followings in India and their leaders often maintain private militias for protection.
Clashes in 2007 between the guru’s Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in northern India.
In 2014, six people were killed when followers of another religious leader, the guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.